At schools across the country, the fashion police are cracking down. An 11th-grader in Indiana was recently sent home for wearing a top printed with a Bible verse and the slogan "This shirt is illegal in 51 countries." When her mother complained that the administration was unfairly targeting religion, officials bluntly responded that all lettering and words were banned so that they didn't have to decide which messages were inappropriate. In fact, the list of prohibitions just keeps on growing: head wear, hoodies, jackets in the classroom, provocative outfits that bare any part of the three B's (breasts, bellies and bottoms). Mandatory dress codes—usually solid-color shirts and black, navy or khaki pants—are increasingly common. And many teens are breaking the rules, risking suspension and even arrest. "For kids, this is a declaration of war," says Bradley. "Clothes are about identity, and telling teens what they can't wear is the same as saying they can't be themselves." Officials say that dress codes promote safety and discipline and reduce fighting and violence. According to research by Southern Illinois University, gang-related head wear and jackets were the top two targets of dress restrictions in the majority of schools surveyed.
Lesson plan: Your child should obey the policy on gang symbols so she doesn't inadvertently wear something that could cause her harm. "Kids may not be in the know about these trends, but administrators have to be," says Riddile. "When I was principal at a school near Washington, D.C., we even had to ban plastic rosaries because they signified a local gang." Review the school code together so you both know exactly what's allowed. Detailed restrictions may seem excessive, but they tend to be most effective because they leave less room for confusion. And when your daughter complains about losing the freedom to express herself, point out that wearing a halter top or short skirt isn't the same as making a political, philosophical or religious statement worthy of constitutional protection. "Tell her it's a problem if she's calling attention to herself in way that distracts other students," says Epstein. "The bottom line is that schools have to focus on the business of learning."
Originally published in the January 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.